Visitors to the public libraries in Ravenswood and Ripley can view more than the books on display this week — they can get a glimpse of colorful, tiny libraries within each library that Hope Nobel hopes will rally an entire county around reading.
When Nobel became the director of the Jackson County Public Libraries two years ago, she formed two goals — to promote literacy in the county, and to make books accessible to the people who lived in outlying areas. Like many public libraries in the state, Jackson County libraries didn’t have the funds to commit to a new project, so Nobel turned to the community for support, and, after some research, found the solution — Little Free Libraries, small boxes filled with free books with signs that encourage people to take books they want and to leave books they’d like to share.
“To me, this seemed obvious,” Nobel said. “I knew that I didn’t have the money to do something, but what I did have was a wealth of potential volunteers with skills, knowledge and resources.”
Little Free Libraries started in 2009 in Wisconsin, and have since spread across the globe. The website for the organization, www.littlefreelibrary.org, offers an interactive map of registered library locations. There are six registered locations in West Virginia: one in Arlington Court on Charleston’s East End, two in Huntington, one in Fairmont, one in Paden City and one in Monongah. Kanawha County Literacy Volunteers and Habitat for Humanity of Kanawha and Putnam Counties are working toward installing more LFLs, including one on Charleston’s West Side.
The Jackson County Public Library, though, has taken Little Free Libraries to a new level in West Virginia. Since the library board voted to support the project last September, county residents and businesses have funded and built 19 LFLs, and the national organization has donated one to Jackson County, bringing that number to 20 — more than the rest of the state combined.
“I’ve been here almost two years, and still find it overwhelming the extent to which people here will step up to help,” Nobel said.
According to Nobel, the functional illiteracy rate in Jackson County is slightly lower than the state average — 18 percent, compared to the state rate of 20 percent — and she’d like to see that improve. Nobel also said that because the county’s two public libraries are located in its largest cities, she was concerned about improving access for people in more rural parts of the county.
“I think there are a lot of people who never get to a library; either their parents don’t bring them, they don’t have access or they don’t know what’s available,” said Katie Speece, a library intern through the Parkersburg Area Community Foundation and a University of Charleston student. “I’m closing in on five weeks in my internship, and I’ve really realized what a treasure a library is to a community.”
Nobel decided the best way to establish the Little Free Libraries was through community support, and divided the support into stages. The Jackson library asked for donations, got volunteers to build the free libraries and artists to decorate them. The libraries have 14 hosts who have said they will install a Little Free Library on their property, and will find stewards to keep them stocked with books and ensure they’re cared for.
Each Little Free Library has been decorated by a local artist or built with a creative design strategy, and the libraries are on display in Ripley and Ravenswood, where visitors can vote on their favorite designs. Local businesses have contributed funds for prizes, and the most popular artist will receive $1,000, sponsored by Constellium. The Jackson County Public Library will also award a Most Artistic prize of $250, sponsored by SDR Plastics, and a Jackson County student prize of $250, sponsored by the Evans Community Initiative.
According to Speece, a Ravenswood native who has worked extensively on the Little Free Libraries project during her internship, the art competition has allowed a range of people to showcase their art and spark interest in the libraries.
“We didn’t just reach out to the professionals; we have a girl who volunteers at the library every day from 9 to 5 who is in high school, and she decorated a library,” she said. “You see a variety of skill levels and different creative measures people incorporated to make their libraries unique. Like everything in a small community, it was a community effort.”
People can vote for their favorites at the Ravenswood and Ripley public libraries through Saturday, and an awards banquet for the participants and winners will be held July 21.
For more information on Little Free Libraries, visit www.littlefreelibrary.org.
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.